A quarter of a century after its release in 1993, the sci-fi classic got so much right it should probably replace astrology
Demolition Man is the greatest action film ever made. Fact. Admittedly, there are some strong contenders – Commando, Predator, the original Total Recall and Terminator 2 obviously spring to mind – but how can anything compete with a film in which Sylvester Stallone fights a dungaree-clad Wesley Snipes in the future?
I make sure I watch Demolition Man at least three times a month, and with each viewing I appreciate it even more.
When Sly does his first of many slow motion runs from whatever is exploding behind him, I sweat profusely and stroke my dog’s head so firmly he meows. And when Sandra Bullock delivers a Jackie Chan-inspired kick to a nameless goon’s head, I actually stand up and take off my shirt.
But there is so much more to Demolition Man than just gland-stimulating action. 25 years after its theatrical release, it’s also proven itself to be eerily prescient, predicting far more about the future than director Marco Brambilla possibly could have imagined.
Opening in a near-apocalyptic Los Angeles in 1996, ravaged by crime, disorder and, presumably, Bill Clinton’s administration, the film wastes absolutely no time in getting to the action, as Sly’s expertly-named John Spartan dukes it out with Snipes’ Simon Phoenix in a set piece fit for a finale. But when both characters are held responsible for the deaths of dozens of hostages and sent straight to cryo-prison, the film suddenly becomes a political parody of what tomorrow might bring.
When Spartan and Phoenix are prematurely defrosted in the year 2032, they find themselves in a reformed world, a seemingly utopian “San Angeles” – Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara were merged together after the “Great Earthquake” of 2010 – where disease has been eradicated and crime is virtually non-existent. It’s basically Guildford.
But this has all come at a cost: human behaviour is now heavily controlled in a hyper-sensitive society, where anything deemed ‘bad’ has actually been made illegal.
Was this one of Brambilla’s fears about the future; that we’d one day be a bunch of robe-wearing wimps who are simultaneously offended and terrified by the thought of eating crisps? Well, apart from the robe bit, it could be argued that we’re already at that point, with social media acting as a soapbox for people to announce the latest thing they’re upset about. And if you’re not in agreement with the masses on Twitter, it won’t be long before you’re banished from the internet altogether and sent to live with the goats in Tibet.
Freedom of speech is one of the main issues Demolition Man tackles, most notably through its depicted ban of swearing.
“You are fined one credit for a violation of the verbal morality statute,” speaks a ticket-spitting hole in the wall after Spartan drops his first profanity. It’s fair to say that this was an accurate prediction, what with there being a huge increase of on-the-spot fines in the UK in the ‘99s and ‘00s for anti-social behaviour. Meanwhile, the overdue rise of political correctness has become an increasing and welcome concern for most sexists and racists.
The film also foretold a ban on cigarettes. In the UK, smoking was, of course, banned from all enclosed work places in 2007, with a lot of people now sucking on fruity tubes instead. And, in a similar vein, it accurately called a change in attitude towards meat, as concerns about health, climate change and animal welfare has led to an increase in veganism.
In 2032 San Angeles, not even sex is condoned by the law. Mercifully, coitus isn’t yet illegal in real life, but Demolition Man did sensationally predict virtual reality porn.
In one scene, Spartan prepares himself for what he thinks will be a hot night of bodily fluid-transferring wild mambo with Bullock’s Lenina Huxley, only for her to whack a VR headset on his bonce and tell him that real sex is disgusting – which it is.
With almost everything remotely joyous banned in this fictitious future, some citizens of San Angeles choose to rebel. They do so by willingly living in the sewers, swearing to their heart’s content and chewing on delicious-looking rat burgers. This clearly represents a prominent gap between the rich and poor. Unsurprisingly, wealth inequality in the modern world is at an all-time high, and by 2030 – just two years before the setting of Demolition Man – the richest 1% are on course to own two thirds of global wealth.
Suddenly, this dystopian sci-fi action film about criminals being cryogenically frozen is not looking so farfetched.
With all this inequality going on, it perhaps comes as no surprise that one corrupt leader is behind this backward civilisation (prepare for obligatory comparison to a certain real-life political leader). Dr. Raymond Cocteau, played menacingly by Nigel Hawthorne, absolutely hates the poor, so much so that he thawed out Phoenix and behaviourally reprogrammed him to kill the rebellion’s loud-mouth leader, Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary). Distortion of facts, neglecting the vulnerable and denouncing those who speak out against you? To be fair, that can’t be pinned on just one president - although he is undoubtedly the most prominent proponent of it.
On a similar note, it also makes a lot of sense that, in the world of Demolition Man, it’s perfectly normal for a celebrity to be president; that celebrity being none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. During a ride in a self-driving car (yeah, they called that one, too), Spartan learns from Huxley that Arnie had a stint in office.
At the time of the film’s release, this was obviously intended as a playful jibe at Stallone’s Planet Hollywood partner, but now it barely even works as a joke; firstly, because a favourably-dressed orangutan could literally win an election these days; and secondly, Arnie actually ended up having a political career in real life when he became the Governor of California. Of course, the Terminator star wouldn’t be allowed to run for presidency in reality, having not been born in the United States, but, as Huxley describes the introduction of a 61st amendment allowing foreigners to run for office, who’s to say this prediction won’t come true, too?
But the real-life comparisons don’t stop there. In the film’s heavily-oppressed society, the only available restaurant is Taco Bell. They won the so-called ‘Franchise Wars’ – or if you’ve seen the bastardised UK cut, it’s Pizza Hut.
Now, we may have more than just one choice of restaurant today, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a major town or city that doesn’t have a Starbucks or McDonald’s within spitting distance. This element of the film could also be seen as a commentary on the domination of major corporations, particular online, where the ‘big five’ of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have come to eat or destroy anything that threatens their position of power.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Brambilla is first and foremost a video collage and installation artist, known for his elaborate recontextualisations of popular and found imagery, so it really isn’t that surprising that Demolition Man offers more than just a typical dosage of ‘90s-style action.
And that thing about life imitating art? Perhaps the reason the film also predicted video calling, tablets, voice-controlled devices and our obsession with nostalgia, is because we’re all actually living in one of Brambilla’s installations, a profoundly beautiful collage portraying political imbalance, corporate greed and a generation of terrified people so lost in their ways they’re wiping their arses with three seashells.
(Images: Warner Bros/AllStar)